Robert Peake first came to our attention as one of the poets featured in New Poets/Short Books, a series published by Lost Horse Press edited by Marvin Bell. We ran Marvin’s inspirational intros to the five volumes last May. Now across the Pond, Robert writes about poetry and culture shock on his website.
A native Californian, I relocated to London with my English wife last spring. Since it costs as much or more to ship a book that distance as it does to buy one new, we downsized considerably. Here are the few which, for financially irrational reasons, made the trip.
First, the Tomes, whose combined weight I don’t even want to think about, include Holman and Harmon’s A Handbook to Literature, The Oxford Book of American Poetry (Lehman), and The Norton Anthology of Poetry (Ferguson, Salzer, Stallworthy). I didn’t take any of the three Complete Works of Shakespeare I had accumulated since college. But my MFA graduation present was a conveniently portable CD-ROM version of the OED, which my wife and I still use constantly to settle etymological scores.
The Big ‘Uns, clocking in at over one-inch across the spine, include:
MFA in a Box (Rember)—a kind of Boy Scout Field Guide for how to live as a writer, go deep in a shallow world, and not only survive in this wilderness, but (artistically) thrive. More here.
Nightworks (Bell)—the voice of my mentor and friend has been a constant source of inspiration and comfort through the dark winter months. I also admit to having convinced myself that Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See, Wednesday and These Green-Going-to-Yellow were all slim enough not to count in my luggage. I am glad I did, as they are perfect for perusing on an overcrowded Tube commute.
Fire to Fire (Doty)—this one got me through some dark times as well with its unflinching look at loss and hope. More here.
The . . . Ur . . . Texts:
The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (Morrison and Motion) has served like a surveyor’s map to this new literary landscape. More here.
The Witness of Poetry (Milosz)—is still one of the most insightful views on not only twentieth-century poetry, but the twentieth century itself. More here.
The Contemporary Stuff:
Given Sugar, Given Salt (Hirshfield) defined a kind of quiet, Zen poem I still find deeply nourishing.
Some Trees (Ashbery) caused me to sit up and wonder, “How does he do that?” on first read, and remains a great source of pleasure on re-reading.
The Art of the Lathe (Fairchild) spoke deep into my own Midwest ancestry, and showed me that a narrative poem can still be capable of stunning imagery and metaphor.
Selected Poems 1963-2003 (Simic) haunted me with its European strangeness, and still gives me shivers today.
A Fish to Feed All Hunger (Alcosser) is a slim but delicious early work from a voice I love to hear in my head.
The Wave That Did Not Break (Harris)—the brave debut of a remarkable friend, face-to-face with his mother’s suicide.
Good Friday Kiss (Bitting)—another good friend’s powerhouse debut.
Music for the Black Room (Maclay) is startlingly sensuous, bordering on noir. Reading this on the Underground, I kept looking over my shoulder.
A little hardbound Everyman’s book of G.M. Hopkins, given to me as a graduation present by my mother. His rhythms still delight me like a jack-in-the-box.
Neruda’s Captain’s Verses, with my own furious scribblings where I carried on arguments with the translator.
The ones in storage that I miss terribly:
Overtime (Millar) in the spirit of Fairchild and perhaps Levine, paying homage to hard work and sweet inner music.
Study For The World’s Body (St. John) is another remarkably sensuous collection with a strong European feel.
And then there are several slim volumes of Li-Young Lee that used to make me hold my breath.
Irrational as it was, I’m glad I took these real books with me. E-books, although portable, are still abysmal for contemporary poetry. And as much as online developments help me feel connected to friends and family, when I want to plug in to the millennia-old tradition of poetry, there is nothing quite like having these pages to turn.